To gain her freedom took Elaine Wilson 36 stays in mental institutions, stretches of being homeless, a protracted lawsuit against the state of Georgia and a date with the U.S. Supreme Court.
She was a plaintiff with Lois Curtis in L.C. and E.W. v. Olmstead, seeking release from Georgia Regional Hospital. Atlanta Legal Aid Society represented the women against Georgia Department of Human Resources Commissioner Tommy Olmstead.
In 1997, Senior U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob ruled that arbitrarily denying the women a community-based life amounted to segregation of people covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act. On June 22, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that ruling.
"To people with disabilities, this case is as significant as Brown v. Board of Education was to people of color," said Mark Johnson, advocacy coordinator for the Shepherd Center.
Elaine Beverly Wilson, 53, of Atlanta died Sunday at Grady Memorial Hospital of heart and lung problems. The body was cremated. The memorial service will be 2 p.m. Sunday at Medford-Peden Funeral Home.
In 2000, Judge Shoob accepted a settlement that the state would guarantee the women community-based housing, training programs and employment.
At that hearing, Ms. Wilson testified to Judge Shoob: "When I was in the institution, I felt like I was in a little box and there was no way out."
Of the plaintiffs' testimonies, Judge Shoob said: "I was amazed. They were both so articulate. At a party after the hearing, they gave a talk about how it felt to take care of themselves and what a wonderful life they were leading. I went up on the podium and hugged each one of them. I'd never done that before."
Ms. Wilson had been shunted among institutions and shelters from age 15 and subjected to shock treatment and psychotropic drugs "that knocked her out and ruined her kidneys," said her mother, Jackie Edelstein of Atlanta.
"When I first met Elaine in 1999, it was very hard to see someone with a valuable talent," said Harriet Harris of Lithonia, executive director of Circle of Support Inc., which provided Ms. Wilson with caretakers. "She was very angry and defensive, having spent so many years fighting for survival. Like someone who had been wounded over and over, it was very hard to trust anyone."
Once Ms. Wilson was placed with a caretaker and given independence, her life changed dramatically.
"She blossomed," said Legal Aid attorney Sue Jamieson of Atlanta, who took on the case in 1995. "She took an interest in cooking and church and her personal appearance. She wanted to do advocacy for other people so [she] acquired training in presenting workshops and giving speeches.
"She developed a PowerPoint presentation that described her life. When I heard it, I was extremely moved. I had no idea that Elaine had acquired that level of sophistication. She had exploited her natural skills and abilities to a degree I would never have believed possible. It makes you wonder how many other people like Elaine are out there."
The story begins when Ms. Wilson was an infant. A 107-degree fever damaged her brain. Her mother tried to provide a normal life. She sent her to public school, then private school, then an Augusta school for children with disabilities.
"Her body was growing, but her mind couldn't keep up," her mother said.
At 15, she came home.
"Then the problems escalated," her mother said. "She was acting inappropriately. I thought I could handle it, but finally I couldn't. With a broken heart and a lot of misgivings, I took her to the state mental hospital in Milledgeville."
That's when Ms. Wilson's life became a journey from one bad living situation to another. Several times she ended up on the streets.
Winning the landmark case in 1999 allowed Ms. Wilson to eventually move into a home of her own with a caretaker.
"We saw Elaine became very independent and very proud of her independence," Ms. Harris said. "She loved to shop at Wal-Mart and Kmart and the grocery store. One of her hobbies was to clip grocery coupons in the Sunday paper. She spent hours picking out greeting cards. She loved to visit people and have people come visit her. She was a very social person."
Watching her daughter turn her life around was "the greatest joy you can imagine a mother having for her child," Mrs. Edelstein said.
Survivors include a sister, Kimberly Costley of Acworth.